A history of Unite Union (Part 1 of 4)


(The following history was prepared as part of the contribution by Unite Union to the international fast food workers meeting in New York in early May. Unions officials and workers were fascinated by the story we were able to tell which in many ways was a prequel to the international campaign today.)

Restaurant Brands delegates join Maritime Union picket, Auckland Wharf

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, workers in New Zealand suffered a massive setback in their levels of union and social organisation and their living standards. A neo-liberal, Labour Government elected in 1984 began the assault and it was continued and deepened by a National Party government elected in 1990.

The “free trade”policies adopted by both Labour and the National Party led to massive factory closures. The entire car industry was eliminated and textile industries were closed. Other industries with traditionally strong union organisation such as the meat industry were restructured and thousands lost their jobs. Official unemployment reached 11.2% in the early 1990s. It was higher in real terms. Official unemployment for Maoris (who make up 14% of the population) was 30%, again higher in real terms. Working class communities were devastated.

The National Party government presided over a deep and long recession from 1990-1995 that was in part induced by its savage cuts to welfare spending and benefits. They also introduced a vicious anti-union law. When the Employment Contracts Act was made law on May Day 1990, every single worker covered by a collective agreement was put onto an individual employment agreement identical to the terms of their previous collective. In order for the union to continue to negotiate on your behalf, you had to sign an individual authorisation. It was very difficult for some unions to manage that. Many were eliminated overnight. Voluntary unionism was introduced and closed shops were outlawed. All of the legal wage protections which stipulated breaks, overtime rates, Sunday rates and so on, went. Minimum legal conditions were now very limited – three weeks holiday and five days sick leave was about the lot. Everything else had to be negotiated again. It was a stunning assault on working people. Union bargaining, where it continued, was mostly concessionary bargaining for the next decade.

The central leadership of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) capitulated completely to these changes and refused to organise broader industrial struggle, let alone a general strike, despite the fact that there was overwhelming sentiment for such a struggle. The impact of the recession and the new law was intensified by the demoralising effect of this failure to resist. Union membership collapsed within a few years from over 50% of workers to around 20%. In the private sector, only 9% of workers today are represented by a union. Whole sectors of industry and services were effectively deunionised. Real wages declined in the order of 25% for most workers by the mid 1990s and have recovered only marginally since. Union membership rates have also failed to recover despite a broad economic recovery from the late-1990s on that resulted in unemployment dropping to under 4% by 2007.

In 1999, a Labour-Alliance government [the Alliance Party was a leftish split from Labour] changed the law on union rights. While voluntary unionism was left untouched, union organisers regained access to workplaces for the purpose of recruitment. The unions now had the right to pursue multi-employer collective agreements through industrial action. Political and solidarity strikes are still outlawed, and you can only legally take action in the bargaining period. But there are few other limitations. You didn’t have to give notice of strike action to employers unless they were an essential industry or even conduct secret ballots for example (requirements since reintroduced by the current National government). Replacing striking workers with outside scabs was also outlawed.

Campaign to organise the unorganised

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A small group of unionists and left-wing activists began a campaign to organise the unorganised in mid-2003. We sought to challenge the notion that it was impossible to reunionise those sectors and that young workers simply weren’t interested in unions.

The initial group came out of the breakup of the Alliance Party in the wake of the decision by the Labour Party/Alliance Party government elected in 1999 to support the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The Alliance Party was eliminated from parliament in the July 2002 election. The group that started the union organising drive was led by Matt McCarten, Kathryn Tucker, Alex Muir and myself – all Alliance Party activists or officials. McCarten had a national political profile as the former president of the Alliance Party. I had considerable social movement organising experience and Muir had the skills needed to create our membership systems and database. Tucker volunteered for a “few weeks” to help set up but proved to be an exceptionally talented recruiter and organiser and ended up staying for 6 years.

Rebels with a cause
Hotel picket, 2003.

Initially, McCarten hoped to simultaneously build the new union and maintain Alliance as a political party. But the Alliance brand was damaged beyond repair and he quit any role in the organisation in November 2004. He subsequently assisted in the formation of the Maori Party in 2004 and the Mana Party in 2011. McCarten wrote a weekly column in one of the main, New Zealand Sunday newspapers beginning in late 2004. His public profile gave media opportunities to Unite that were very rare and opportune for a union organising drive.

In February 2014, McCarten announced that he had accepted a posting as chief of staff of the new (September 2013) leader of the Labour Party, David Cunliffe. The announcement came from left field – literally and figuratively.

The founding member group of the union organising drive was convinced that the legal opportunities for accessing workplaces in the Labour/Alliance government’s employment law adopted in 2000 weren’t being exploited aggressively enough, in particular the new access rights. Another element of the new law that helped was that employers had to deduct union fees unless it was specifically prohibited in the individual agreement. We also had a gut feeling that after six-seven years of economic expansion and relatively low unemployment in New Zealand, the element of fear and intimidation preventing workers from signing up for a union would have subsided. The worry of losing a poor minimum wage job and finding difficulty to get another was no longer so prevalent among the workers to whom we were appealing. Most importantly, we had confidence that workers, and young workers in particular, would respond to new approaches that gave them a chance to fight for themselves.

The vehicle for the organising drive was Unite Union, which at the time was a very small union of about 100 members. It was originally launched in October 1998 to oppose a work-for-the-dole plan by the National Party government of the day. That government plan didn’t proceed. Unite became a general membership union that workers could join who didn’t fit the membership rules of the existing unions. It had two small collective agreements for English language school teachers. It was run by union officials from other unions in a voluntary capacity. It’s membership rule allowed it to represent virtually anyone and it had the additional benefit of being an affiliate of the central union body, the Council of Trade Unions.

There was some suspicion about the Unite project – especially from unions close to the Labour Party. Unions already present in industries where we gained recruiting successes also had obvious concerns. One leading union official even described us as a “scab union” and a motion was moved at the Council of Trade Unions National Executive to expel Unite. Then-CTU President Ross Wilson was supportive of our work and intervened to prevent the motion being put. Other officials, including from Labour Party affiliated unions, were excited by what we were trying to do.

Unite initially planned to organise as a “community union”, but it soon became obvious we had to go after the big chains in fast food, cinemas, and hotels. They had all been largely deunionised in the early 1990s. We immediately had a burst of publicity during July and August 2003 when the government said it was going to decriminalise prostitution. We said we would accept prostitutes as members. Coincidentally, a strip club and brothel owner sacked six staff who asked for Unite’s help. We shut down his three premises with a picket and a video camera to take footage of any customers going in – needless to say, none did.

Unite had a way of getting noticed

Publicity led to us being noticed and called up by workers wanting union representation. Two call-centre workers volunteered to help conduct a recruitment drive at their workplaces. One was a security company monitoring centre and the other was the Restaurant Brands call centre for Pizza Hut with 100 staff. Other unions those workers had asked for help told them they had to sign up a majority of staff before they could expect help. We signed up a big majority of staff at both. We signed a collective at the Restaurant Brands call centre in June 2004 – the first for the fast food industry in years. At the security company, a collective was signed in July 2004. The majority of staff at the call centre of Baycorp, the largest debt collection agency in the country, also signed up with Unite after a worker came to us over an unjustified dismissal. We signed a collective agreement there in September 2004.

We tried new ways of signing up. We used a membership form that was more like a petition form. We kept entry union dues low or even free. Ultimately, we settled on a standard of a minimum dues of $2 a week until a first collective agreement was signed when a fee of 1% of wages up to a maximum (initially $4.50) was charged. Again a percentage fee was an obvious thing to do for workers whose income varied radically from week to week but which isn’t done by any other union that I am aware of. We found this dues structure was no barrier to recruitment. What we also discovered was that we could recruit someone in a five minute conversation if we got to speak to them individually.

We also started recruiting in hotels with some success. We had an early, highly publicised dispute in November 2003, organising several loud, early morning pickets outside the Quay West hotel in Auckland to get a collective agreement for contract cleaning staff. Matt McCarten was arrested (soon released), our sound gear was confiscated by police and we were taken to court for an injunction to stop any further picket action. By the end of 2004, we had collective agreements at a dozen hotels.

2004 recruitment campaign in cinemas

As a test of the mood among the young, casualised workforce in New Zealand, we decided in 2004 to go after the three main cinema chains – Readings, Berkeley (now merged with Hoyts) and Village SkyCity (now Event Cinemas). Unite volunteer Kathryn Tucker led this work and we had immediate success. We recruited hundreds of members and had over 80% of the staff in the union. We secured collective agreements by the end of 2004 at Berkeley’s and Village SkyCity without the need to take any action. We began to negotiate a new standard whereby all paid breaks are 15 minutes rather than 10; we have won this in all subsequent Unite collective agreements.

We also discovered that some of the strongest motivators for workers may not be just bread and butter issues. Of equal, or greater, importance are issues involving personal dignity. Cinema workers got two free tickets each week but these could be taken off you for any petty infraction. If you were five minutes late, if you had a sick day, looked the wrong way at your manager, you could lose your “comps”. We won the movie tickets as a right that could not be arbitrarily taken away.

Readings Cinema was reluctant to sign, however. In the knowledge that a large proportion of the profit at a cinema comes from the sales of confectionery, we had a large picket outside Readings in Wellington in September 2004 with free popcorn. It costs virtually nothing to make, and an old lefty friend had a machine for making it. We quickly won a substantial pay rise and an agreement to eliminate youth rates over two years. Again, we made national news.

Readings Cinema Picket 2004

Through these recruitment drives, we were confident that we could take on the fast food companies. We made the mistake, however, of thinking we could fight them one by one. We went after Burger King first. We thought it would be an easier target as it was smaller than Restaurant Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks) and it had no franchisee stores like McDonald’s. That was a mistake. We signed up several hundred BK members in early 2005, but negotiations became protracted. BK used a very high proportion of workers on temporary visas and we were relying too much on untrained, union volunteers with little or no experience.

The company was owned by three individuals with a high degree of hostility, obliging them to dip into their pockets to fight us. To knock BK over would require a high-profile public campaign. The sort of resources required to do that meant we may as well take on all the fast food chains at once. Negotiation of the BK agreement was put on hold until we had forced the other fast food companies to negotiate meaningfully. In the end, BK was the last company to sign a collective agreement. But the seeds were sown for what followed.

During 2005, a number of workers from the SkyCity casino in Auckland joined Unite. Accepting this group as members was the most difficult and controversial decision of Unite because another union had a collective agreement with the company. Luckily, our newly established presence helped lead to union membership as a whole expanding, to a combined total of about 1000 members. Unite became the majority union on site and we now negotiate a joint collective agreement with the other union. Casino Unite members have a semi-autonomous association called SkyCity Employees Association-Unite (SEA-Unite).

SkyCity members of SEA-Unite picket company


  1. Oh, I almost feel sorry for Mike, that nobody has commented here. Mike, I value what you have done for UNITE, and for the marginalised workers. Thank you for this brief summary of UNITE’s background and history. It shows that some are now very active in MANA and IP.

    As I know some of your members, I also must say, I wish you at UNITE, amongst you leaders, would have been a bit more open and loyal towards the totally disenfranchised, those on benefit dependency, who do not even have a chance to enter employment, for various reasons. Sadly I have heard that UNITE has always treated the unemployed and those on benefits a bit like second class union members.

    That is NOT right, and I hope that in future we will see more loyalty.

    Thanks and best wishes.

  2. […] Part 1   Part 2   2005 fast food recruitment drive Beginning in May 2005, we launched a recruitment drive at all the main fast food restaurants in preparation for the launch of the public campaign. This included Restaurant Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks), McDonald’s (including all franchisees), BK, Wendy’s and Red Rooster (since closed). We negotiated “access protocols” with each company. We had a legal right to access to talk to staff. The companies were determined to keep us from going back of house to talk to staff during work hours, so we accepted the “compromise” that a manager would send each staff member out for a one-on-one chat for a few minutes. We already knew that this “compromise” would enable us to recruit in the hundreds. We had the assistance of a very smart young volunteer, Simon Oosterman, who brought in a youthful tech-savvy that combined well with Matt McCarten’s political party campaign experience and my own social movement organising. Two other central organisers of the campaign still with Unite today were Joseph Carolan and Tom Buckley. At the beginning of 2006, John Minto – an iconic figure of the anti-apartheid movement in New Zealand – gave up his teaching job and joined the Unite project. As well as his organising and negotiating skills, Minto was a household name and also had a weekly column in the Christchurch daily paper. Minto left Unite in 2012 to concentrate on building the Mana Movement. SuperSizeMyPay.Com   Oosterman designed the website and publicity materials that became SuperSizeMypay.com. In doing so, we maxed out our personal credit cards and homes were refinanced. A bus was bought with a kick-arse sound system able to be attached to the roof. We had identified the 3 key issues for which we would negotiate in each and every collective agreement and which we considered essential: […]

  3. When Unite was set up in 1998 it was not just for work- for- the- dole. Unite had a holistic vision of a united working class including both waged and unwaged. From the 1998 Constitution :
    3. (a) Membership of the Union is open to any worker whether employed, self employed or unemployed; casual or part-time; forced or slave labour (including prisons and workfare), suffering from illness, accident or disability; caring for family members; or in unpaid or voluntary work.
    The fact that work for the dole did not officially eventuate at that time is said to be a reason to not recruit or organise beneficiaries . However many people are working for the dole in the guise of “training”, including for a well known garden store. Prisoners and the disabled are working for peanuts. Unite needs to actively confront this abuse of workers’ rights as well as actively support all beneficiary rights as per its constitution (which although amended still includes beneficiaries). Some members of Unite are doing their best to uphold this kaupapa including the Unite Waitemata Branch but with very little resourcing.

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